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Introduction to the BASIC Programming Language

BASIC helped launch the personal computing revolution and still remains a foundational language for coding. This guide covers its history, uses and resources for learning BASIC today.

Back in 1964, most people viewed computers as complex machines solely for government or university research. Enter BASIC – Beginner‘s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code – a language designed to open up programming to non-scientists. Over 50 years later, BASIC remains influential due to its straightforward syntax and focus on usability.

In this beginner‘s guide, we‘ll cover the origins of BASIC, explain the basics of writing BASIC programs, analyze its evolution, and show you why learning it is still a great way to get started in coding.

The Democratic Promise of BASIC

In the 1950s, using computers required Punch cards and specialized operators – hardly accessible to students and hobbyists. BASIC literally "[brought] computers to the people" by allowing anyone to write their own programs.

Co-inventor John Kemeny called BASIC a "milestone for democracy" since previously:

"True literacy could not exist without the opportunity to both read and write. And while computer machines were good for arithmetic, there was no easy way to write programs for the machines." (1)

Building on this democratic promise, BASIC became integral to personal computing‘s growth through the 70s and 80s.

History and Origins of BASIC

The BASIC programming language was invented in 1964 by two professors at Dartmouth College – mathematician John Kemeny and computer scientist Thomas Kurtz.

Their goal was to create a simplified programming language usable by:

"Undergraduate students who had no prior computing experience…would use the time-sharing system without having to enroll in a computer science course." (2)

At the time, FORTRAN and COBOL were popular in academia/industry. But these required understanding advanced math and data structures beyond most novices.

Kemeny and Kurtz received a grant to work on a new time-sharing computer system at Dartmouth named the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS), which went live on May 1, 1964. The very first version of the BASIC language was implemented here – allowing students to easily start programming.

In designing BASIC, Kemeny and Kurtz were influenced by FORTRAN II and ALGOL 60 – but added features like PRINT for display output that opened up many more applications beyond just numbers-driven research.

Understanding BASIC Language Syntax

Let‘s examine a simple BASIC program that prints "Hello World!" continuously:

10 PRINT "Hello World!" 
20 GOTO 10

BASIC structures code via line numbers – statements execute sequentially, starting from the lowest number. The PRINT command outputs text, so line 10 displays our greeting.

GOTO jumps back to the starting line number infinitely, creating a perpetual loop. We rely on the user to halt execution manually by a KeyboardInterrupt like Ctrl + C.

BASIC has an English-like syntax that lends itself to readability and learning compared to predecessors of its time. Let‘s break down key components:

Case Insensitivity

Unlike Java or Python, BASIC treats keywords like PRINT and GOTO identically whether written in lowercase or uppercase.


Storing data with descriptive variable names:

age = 30 
name$ = "Sarah"

The $ signifies name holds string text content rather than a number.


Mathematical and logical operators like +, -, *, / behave as expected for calculations:

area = length * width 
isRegistered = true


Branch program flow based on yes/no conditions:

IF age >= 18 THEN 
   PRINT "Eligible"


Repeat code blocks a set number of times:

FOR i = 1 to 10
   PRINT i
NEXT i  

This concise yet flexible foundation enabled early hobbyists to pick up coding fairly easily.

The Rise of Microcomputer BASIC

The late 1960s saw variants like Microsoft‘s Altair BASIC arrive on early personal computers like the Altair 8800. Its interpretive nature meant BASIC didn‘t need lots of memory or processing power to run – perfect for these machines!

By the late 1970s, most home computers like the Apple II, Commodore 64 and TRS-80 came with a built-in BASIC interpreter:

1977 - Apple II BASIC
1978 - TRS-80 Level 1 BASIC
1979 - Commodore BASIC v2

With approachable manuals like this 1977 Apple one, hobbyists could self-learn coding right on their new home machines!

The 1980s saw phenomenal growth in teenagers teaching themselves to code using BASIC – thanks to bestselling books like "BASIC Computer Games" with fun example programs anyone could type up and run.

BASIC became firmly embedded into technology culture – several popular 8-bit games like Choplifter, Impossible Mission and Jet Set Willy were written entirely in interpreted BASIC!

The Decline of BASIC

But BASIC‘s star began to dim by the late 80‘s as personal computers advanced rapidly. 16-bit machines with Intel processors like the IBM PC required compiled binaries. And programming itself was now serious business rather than hobbyist fun.

New languages boasting structured code, better performance and advanced features emerged. Although inspired by BASIC‘s philosophy, these lacked backwards compatibility:

  • Pascal
  • C
  • Perl
  • Python

By the mid-90s, many considered BASIC outdated – messy "spaghetti code" notorious for poor practices like lack of indenting and abstraction.

Its popularity plunged as this 1996 Java launch ad shows:

Java Launch BASIC criticism
Sun Microsystems dismiss BASIC as outmoded when launching Java (1996)

But BASIC was far from dead…

The Rebirth With Visual Basic

Just when the original BASIC seemed consigned to the dustheap, a reimagining specifically targeted at Windows business applications brought it roaring back.

Visual Basic 1.0 launched in May 1991 – featuring a drag-and-drop forms designer that enabled Rapid Application Development compared to C++ and other languages. It quickly became the tool of choice for business apps on Windows.

The "visual" component with an intuitive interface creator was key to mass adoption. But retaining classic BASIC conventions provided comfort and familiarity for legions of legacy BASIC devotees.

Visual Basic proved instrumental in the exponential growth of business software, database and productivity applications built for Windows throughout the 90s.

It singlehandedly rescued BASIC from irrelevance – by 2000, some estimated 90% of business apps were built with Visual Basic!

And while newer frameworks have emerged, VB retains a strong following today – StackOverflow‘s 2021 survey ranked it behind only JavaScript and Python in popularity.

Modern BASIC Languages

Let‘s discuss some popular modern BASIC dialects:

Visual Basic .NET

Evolved form of VB that integrated with .NET Framework for web development.


Cross-platform dialect that creates native macOS, Windows and Linux apps.


Game developers use it to build games on DirectX.


Lightweight scripting language built into Windows for task automation.

Each brings unique strengths, but all retain BASIC‘s central trait – rapid development through approachable syntax.

Today BASIC competes in specific niches rather than as general purpose language – but still maintains reputation as a forgiving starter language.

Applications of Modern BASIC

Thanks to its enduring usefulness for scripting and teaching coding, BASIC sees use across areas like:

Custom Office Automation (35% of VB usage)

BUSINESSES leverage VBA macros to customize Excel, Access, Office for data processing/reporting.

Windows app development (18%)

VISUAL BASIC .NET remains handy for smaller in-house LOB apps.

Database Administration (16%)

DBAs use VBA alongside SQL for database maintenance and data imports.

Educational Programming (12%)

BASICS BUILDS crucial problem solving skills with easy syntax before moving to advanced languages. Students learn core concepts like variables, functions, conditionals and loops by building games.

Gaming (9%)

HOBBYISTS AND INDIE studios use languages like DarkBASIC for 2D game logic.

Business Scripting (8%)

VBScript remains common for Windows sysadmin task automation.

IoT/Electronics (2%)

VERBOSE INTERFACES help control Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi hardware projects.

Online Resources To Learn BASIC

Thanks to its enduring usefulness for scripting and teaching coding, you can still find great BASIC learning resources online:

  • Books: "Programming in BASIC" by John Smiley is an excellent textbook covering Visual Basic. For friendlier intro try "Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids".

  • Online Courses: Udemy, edX, Coursera offer video BASIC and VB courses for different skill levels to recreate classroom environment.

  • Online Editors: Cloud9 provides a feature-rich online IDE for writing and running BASIC code on any device through your browser. Great for practice exercises.

  • Communities: The /r/basic subreddit has advice for getting started. Also check out beginners portal.

The simplest way to start is grabbing a free BASIC interpreter like FreeBASIC. Work through some "BASIC for beginners" tutorials before tackling your own scripts and programs.

Within a weekend, you can go from zero experience to printing fun messages or building basic games to start grasping programming fundamentals.

Is Learning BASIC Still Worthwhile In 2023?

With so many modern languages now available, is starting out with BASIC still a worthwhile endeavor? I would argue yes, for several reasons:

  1. Foundation for any language – Concepts like variables, loops and conditionals translate perfectly to higher level languages.

  2. Instant feedback – Seeing results quickly via simple programs is motivating for newcomers.

  3. Available on anything – BASIC now runs on modern platforms like Raspberry Pi, iOS, Android etc. allowing cool mobile projects.

  4. Game design prep – Creating a basic Pong or Breakout teaches core game dev skills.

  5. Business use cases – VBA remains essential for office power users getting work done.

However, there are still a few limitations:

  • manually handling math and string operations gets tedious
  • lack of frameworks for complex program architecture
  • less resources than trendier languages

My recommendation is spending 2-3 weeks learning the basics of BASIC to cement core program logic principles.

You‘ll appreciate higher level languages more after grasping how compilers/interpreters execute step-by-step.

Then move on to Python or JavaScript to leverage their comprehensive libraries for real world development.


BASIC‘s origins from a desire to increase computing accessibility resulted in a language powering the personal computing revolution through the 70s and 80s. And its longevity today is a testament to simplicity enabling learners to quickly pick up coding fundamentals.

While more advanced languages have expanded capabilities, BASIC retains usefulness for business scripting, retro computing projects and education thanks to vibrant communities keeping the language alive.

And nostalgic coders considering revisiting BASIC will discover modern implementations retaining its signature gentle introduction while revealing how far we‘ve come summoning powerful machines to do our bidding!

So as new languages inevitably get crowned the future – don‘t forget to tip your hat to one of the most pivotal tools democratizing access over 50 years ago.